Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

World Trade Center

Posted by CinemaPsycho on August 11, 2006

Directed by Oliver Stone/written by Andrea Berloff/starring Nicolas Cage, Michael Pena, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Maria Bello, Stephen Dorff, Jay Hernandez/Paramount Pictures


I have to admit, I wasn’t prepared to write the review I’m about to write. I was prepared to either really love this movie or really hate it. Those are the easiest reviews to write. I wasn’t ready to just find it “pretty good”.

On one level, I do think it’s Oliver Stone’s best movie in years. Which isn’t much of an achievement when your recent filmography includes Alexander and Any Given Sunday, granted. The interesting thing about World Trade Center is how so much of it works so well, yet coming from a first-class filmmaker like Stone, you can’t help but wish it was even better.

For anyone who doesn’t know, this is Stone’s 9/11 movie. More specifically, it’s the story of two Port Authority officers, John McLoughlin (Cage) and Will Jimeno (Pena) who responded to the disaster and wound up getting trapped in the rubble. We see the entire event from their eyes and those of their wives (Gyllenhaal and Bello), who are waiting at home for word on their survival. If you’re looking for a larger view of the story, conspiracy theories, or a political diatribe, you won’t find it in this film. This isn’t that movie. So one thing I’m not going to do is criticize the movie for not being what it’s not intended to be – that would be bullshit. Like last spring’s United 93, this is a simple dramatization of the events of that day. That’s all it’s meant to be, and that’s exactly how it should be taken.

Which is why it’s more than a little scary that the right-wing mouthpieces have championed this movie as being “on their side” (you know, the wacko extremist conservative-Christian side). Not that this is surprising – those misguided folks will jump on anything that they think vindicates their position. The truth, as usual, is a little more complex than that. This movie’s not about “America, right or wrong” – it’s about good people from all walks of life coming together to help each other. How sad that anyone would take such a thing and twist it to their political position. Again, not surprising, but sad.

In fact, that’s what I liked most about the movie, and the thing that I found the most moving in it. It is about America – an America that existed on that particular day, under those particular circumstances. The city was under attack, people were dying and suffering, and we came together as a people to help those in need. That’s not political, no matter how much people like Cal Thomas would like to spin it that way. No one asked, “who did you vote for?” or “do you love your country?” before pulling someone out of the wreckage. They only cared about saving as many lives as they possibly could. Again, not a political thing.

It’s ironic that the same people who used to accuse Stone of being “anti-American” are now praising him for his portrayal of Americans in this film. The truth is, Stone has never been anti-American, unless you consider criticism of the government to equal hatred of the people. Which no sane person should. While watching the blue-collar New York cops and their families in WTC, I couldn’t help but think of the soldiers in Platoon and the family in Born on the Fourth of July. It seems to me that few filmmakers truly understand the nature of lower- and middle-class Americans the way Stone does. He doesn’t see them as stereotypes or targets of ridicule – they’re just people, human beings with foibles and flaws like everyone else, but essentially good at their core. That doesn’t strike me as the work of someone who hates his country and the people in it. If anything, I think Stone truly loves America, but despises what’s been happening to it since the Vietnam and Watergate era. He believes in the ideal of what America’s supposed to be, and so rarely has been since that time.

When World Trade Center is at its absolute best, it’s a vivid reminder of that ideal. While 9/11 was obviously a day of great tragedy, I think Stone also sees it as a rare day in which the system worked the way it’s supposed to. People came together from around the country to help their fellow countrymen in a time of crisis. For one day, people weren’t complete assholes toward each other. We were united by our collective trauma and our fear, which motivated many of us to want to do something, to help in whatever way we possibly could. For that one day, people cared about each other enough to take action, which is how America should be every day. When I look at the characters in this film, I don’t see races or religions or political affiliations – I see good people trying to do their best for each other in the center of a nightmare. I think that’s the story Stone wanted to tell – that rare story that he could tell without cynicism. I think he could easily turn around and make another film about the political blunderings that led to that day (Bush ignoring the CIA warnings of a terrorist attack, for starters), and all the bullshit that came after it (using the attack as an excuse to invade a country that had nothing to do with it). But this story is about that particular day, a day when people cared more about each other than about all the issues that divide us.

One of the more controversial elements of the film has been the inclusion of a character named Dave Karnes (played by Michael Shannon), a religious ex-Marine who drove from Wisconsin to the disaster site and was ultimately responsible for finding the buried officers. Obviously, if he’s the one who found them, then his story is relatively important to the narrative. But some have suggested that his presence implies a certain nod to the right-wing loonies that the war in Iraq is just. I don’t know about that, personally. First of all, it’s well-known that Stone doesn’t agree with the war, and he’s continued to say so in recent interviews. Secondly, if that’s what really happened, then that’s what happened. As an avowed agnostic, it doesn’t bother me to see a Christian portrayed as heroic, especially if he did in fact do a heroic thing. I don’t have a problem with people having those beliefs – I only have a problem with their insistence that everyone else has to have the same beliefs in order to be a good person. But if that’s what works for you, go for it. If being a Christian causes you to be a pompous, hypocritical asshole like Pat Robertson, then I’d say those beliefs are not serving you well. But if those beliefs cause you to do good things like save people’s lives, more power to you then. I don’t see a problem. As far as the war goes, it is true that Karnes talks about “avenging this” and eventually re-enlists in the Marines to serve two tours in Iraq. But a lot of people reacted that way at the time, even joining (or rejoining) the military because they thought they were needed. It’s not their fault that Bush sent them to the wrong country, is it? When the film shows all the various reactions that people had that day, it would be dishonest to leave that one out. I don’t see it as an endorsement of anything – they’re simply showing that that’s what people like Karnes felt they had to do. Whether we agree with it or not isn’t the point. It’s just one decision people made that day, among many decisions that were made. Hey, good for Karnes for having the guts to do what he thought was right. At least he went for his own reasons and not anyone else’s.

I think it’s great that Stone doesn’t let his own personal politics get in the way of telling the story. I just kinda wish there was more of a story to tell. The early part of the film, in which the officers experience first-hand the horror that’s going on around them, is impressively harrowing and looks like an accurate re-creation of what they experienced from the ground level. Those of us who weren’t actually there will probably never get any closer to it than this, and that’s as close as I’d ever want to get.

The problem is, once McLoughlin and Jimeno get trapped at the bottom of the elevator shaft, the film switches over to a rather conventional “guys trapped underground” movie, and it all plays out pretty much the way you’d expect. Fundamentally, it’s not so different than your typical “boy trapped in a well” Movie of the Week, except with the added subtext of the real-life backdrop. Our protagonists, previously men of action, become stuck underground and their point of view becomes extremely limited. While Cage and Pena do terrific work and continue to make us care about their characters, there’s still a sense of dramatic stagnancy in these scenes. We’re not moving around, we’re not seeing anything outside while they’re down there. Where everything seemed so realistic and vivid early on, it feels like we’re trapped on a set for a large portion of the rest of the film. It’s like shifting from an exciting high gear to a merely somewhat interesting low gear.

Things are only marginally better when the film cuts to the suffering families. Again, the performances here by Gyllenhaal and Bello are fantastic (though Bello’s blue contacts are a bit distracting), but the scenes mostly play out so conventionally that it’s hard to work up much emotion. You’d have to be made of stone not to feel something for these people in this situation, obviously, but we don’t really see too much here that we haven’t seen countless times in other movies where husbands are lost/missing/trapped, etc. It’s not that these scenes are bad, or that they’re not accurate to the story. It’s just that, despite their true-life origins, they don’t really present us anything we haven’t seen before.

I don’t know how these story elements could have been told any other way, but maybe the problem is the choice of story itself. By limiting the film’s perspective to these four characters (for the most part), we’re not really given much of a broad overview of the actual event. Not that they needed to cut away to a lot of different people, but why not choose a main character who was a more active participant? Perhaps a rescuer who wasn’t trapped, and was on the outside all day long? Even a supervisor? That way we could see the whole event from that person’s eyes, and the movie would truly be about the falling of the Towers, rather than the people stuck in the rubble. After all, anyone who goes to this movie wants that cathartic experience of seeing what happened from the point of view of those who were there. To cut away from that is kind of a cop-out – it would be like making United 93 and not showing the plane about to crash, or the events leading up to it. Stone could have finished the film with the final rescues that day, including those of McLoughlin and Jimeno – just don’t make them the main characters. When you go to see a movie about a subject like this, you want the focus right there on the event itself, in all its horror. Perhaps that’s why the film isn’t as cathartic as it could have been – because it starts out with that horror and doesn’t stick to it.

In the end, World Trade Center is a decent film, in both senses of the word, and a film worth seeing. But it’s not a great film, and you can’t shake the feeling that it could have been.

*** 8/11/06

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